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Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.-1974 (negligence-private person)

Basic Facts:

In 1968, Chicago police officer, Richard Nuccio fatally shot a young man, Nelson. Nuccio was charged with second-degree murder.  The Nelson family hired Elmer Gertz to represent them in their civil lawsuit against Nuccio.  In 1969, the American Opinion, a magazine owned by Robert Welch/John Birch society, published articles suggesting that Gertz  had falsely framed the officer and accused Gertz of being a “Comunist-fronter” and a “Leninist”. The magazine also stated that Gertz had a criminal record. Gertz then sued for defamation.

The question:

Was Gertz a public figure and did he have to prove malice in order to expect to receive damages?

Can newspapers/magazines publish defamatory statements against those who are not public figures?

The decision:

5 votes for Gertz, 4 votes against. Justice Powell for the majority.

The ruling:

The Court reviewed Times V. Sullivan as precedent. The Court said plaintiffs that were public figures could not sued for libel or damages unless the statements were printed with actual malice. Plaintiffs like Gertz, who were not public figures, need only prove a degree of fault. Justice Powell argued that the application of Times V. Sullivan was inappropriated because Gertz was not a public figure. The Court believed “Neither petitioner’s past service on certain city committees nor his appearance as an attorney at the coroner’s inquest into the death of the murder victim made him a public official. P. 418 U. S. 351.” and an individual may not be deemed a public figure because of certain aspects of his life.  Gertz was awarded $50,000, which he promptly spent on an “around-the-world” cruise with his wife. It was reported that they sent “wish you were here” post cards to the Birch society every chance they could. Thanks to Gertz, private figures must only prove that there was negligence on the side of the libeler.

Lauren Zimmerman

April 1, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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